Stalinist Regime in Albania Keeps a Tight Rein on Its Citizens
This is the fear that envelops Albania:
A woman furtively approaches a foreigner on a Tirana street corner, asks him to relay a message to relatives abroad, then slinks back into the cool night.
Shabbily dressed residents in an apartment house in the coastal city of Saranda turn away as a foreign journalist stares up at their windows. They then send a boy to report his unauthorized presence to distraught official guides.
Two young men approach the journalist near a dark fountain in downtown Tirana to discuss their passion for soccer. But they break off the conversation when two plainclothes policemen who had been following the writer suddenly show up.
‘Everyone Is Vigilant’
When the journalist complains later, a government official shrugs a denial.
“If we had really posted people to follow you, you wouldn’t have known about it,” he said. “In any case, there is no need. If you become involved in any anti-state activities, then the Albanian people themselves will inform on you. Everyone in Albania is vigilant.”
Forty-two years of isolation and tight state control enforced by the police force known as Sigurimi, or security, have left Albania’s 2.9 million people afraid to talk with the few foreign visitors allowed into the Adriatic state. As a result, despite some signs that the country’s Communist rulers are moving to open their society, it is still difficult to determine just what the ordinary Albanian thinks about the way he must live.
"(Albanians) have been warned by the police and (Communist) Party officials not to talk to foreigners,” a Western diplomat in Tirana, the capital, told a reporter who was recently permitted to make a rare visit to the world’s last hard-line Stalinist state.
Fear of Jail
“If the Sigurimi catch them, they face being charged with anti-state agitation and propaganda, which carries a sentence of up to 10 years in jail,” the diplomat said.
The policy is said to be harshly enforced. Albanian defectors contend that there are about 40,000 political prisoners in Albania, including ethnic Greeks, Roman Catholics and Muslims barred from practicing their religions in the world’s only officially atheistic nation.
The defectors tell stories of authorities forcing a son to betray his mother for hoarding food, of a court jailing a man for 25 years because he refused to toast the health of the late Albanian leader Enver Hoxha and of a man being imprisoned in 1980 for showing “too much enthusiasm” during a performance by a touring Greek folklore group.
At the heart of the fear is Albania’s adherence to Stalinism, a hard-line brand of Communism that has been abandoned by even the Soviet Union. Albania continues to revere Josef Stalin long after his homeland, the Soviet Union, has turned away from him. He is a hero, with streets and cities named after him.
Controls in Evidence
“Albanian unity and economic progress can only be achieved through Stalinist ideals,” one government official said.
Albania’s dedication to strict controls was in evidence when a reporter departed from his arranged schedule and walked without escort into an apartment complex for workers in Saranda, opposite the Greek isle of Corfu.
The journalist’s greetings sparked suspicious and hostile glances from many residents, although one Gypsy woman ignored the rest to smile and wave back.
As the reporter made his way back to his official party, he found that his guides had already been informed of his unauthorized wanderings: A young boy sent by anxious parents to sound the alarm was already running back home.
Dissent is punished severely. Citing testimony from defectors, Amnesty International has described the harsh life of political prisoners in two labor camps, Spac and Ballsh, and in Burrel Prison.
Prisoners at Spac, the rights group contends, work six or seven days a week in copper mines, surviving on meager food rations, and have little or no contact with their families. Amnesty International said that prisoners are permitted to rest only long enough to listen to lectures by Spac’s political commissar.
In a rare interview, Paskal Haxhi, 60, a former Supreme Court judge who now teaches constitutional law at Tirana University, denied that such camps exist. But he acknowledged that criminals are sent to “work centers” for “re-education.”
Haxhi also said that there was a “precautionary system of internal exile for people such as the families of defectors, to move them away from border areas.”
No Numbers Released
The government has never revealed the number of prisoners in Albania. Haxhi said there was only one prison in Albania, which held 80 inmates, and “as our crime rate decreases every year, the prison will eventually be closed.”
Under a constitution adopted in 1976, Albanians are guaranteed freedom of conscience, expression and association. There are even elections, but their legitimacy is questionable. Authorities said that all 1.62 million eligible voters went to the polls in 1982 national elections and that only one voted against the regime.
The government rejects traditional Western interpretations of basic rights.
“Where the rights of the individual clash with the good of our society, then the good of our society must come first,” Haxhi said.
In 1967, for example, Albania declared itself the only officially atheist state in the world.
“They say religion is a human right,” Haxhi said. “We cite Marx, who said religion is the opium of the masses. As Marxists, therefore, we have abolished organized religion.”
All of the 2,169 churches and mosques in the country--65% Sunni Muslim, 25% Orthodox Christian and 10% Roman Catholic--were closed after religion was banned. But Haxhi said that “some are kept open as museums for their cultural value.”
Despite the Muslim majority, Islamic names are rare, primarily because in 1975 the government ordered that all residents adopt “nice Albanian names,” as one Albanian diplomat said. Even crosses marking graves in Christian cemeteries have been removed.
‘Climate Is Hostile’
“It is not illegal for people to have icons or to wear crosses, but the climate is hostile to such things, so people avoid it,” Haxhi said.
Still, individual Albanians are free to believe what they want, he said.
“Our constitution doesn’t forbid a religious conscience, but any organized expression of religion such as a Mass, a baptism or religious funeral service is prohibited,” he said. “We think religion--any religion--poisons society and plays a negative role, slowing progress down.”
Haxhi contended that Albania’s Roman Catholics were potentially the most dangerous religious group because they “receive instructions from the Vatican, a center of reaction which has played a negative role in history and only supports imperialism.” Tirana bitterly attacked Pope John Paul II when he recently called on Christians to pray for the church in Albania.
Despite the official ban, Albanians who have fled to Greece say that religious practices continue.
“People still light candles at home and pray,” Giorgia Papayanni, who left Albania in December, said. “They remember saints’ days and keep icons and crosses hidden away.”
It is not easy to get out of the country. Albanians are not permitted to travel abroad as tourists, and only a few have ever been granted permission to emigrate. The government has put up barbed wire fences and planted mine fields along the borders, which are patrolled by armed guards with orders to shoot to kill.
In the coastal city of Saranda, searchlights crisscross the beaches at night, and residents on the Greek island of Corfu, eight miles away, say they often spot Albanian soldiers in trenches and cement pillboxes that have been dug all along the coast.
Government officials call the precautions part of the national defense. But defectors say they are mostly a means of discouraging people from leaving, and even Haxhi notes that the death penalty can be imposed on an Albanian convicted of “flight from the state.”
“An Albanian who leaves his country without permission is a traitor,” Haxhi said.
The government makes sure that the message gets through to the people. The Italian Embassy in Tirana has been surrounded by police since December, 1985, when six brothers and sisters sought refuge there.
Ramiz Alia, the man who succeeded Hoxha as president and Communist Party leader after Hoxha’s death in 1985, has kept the same tight rein on power. The party hierarchy is shrouded in secrecy. Party literature makes mention only of the ruling Politburo, which has 13 full members, including two or three women, five candidate members and a five-member secretariat, headed by Alia.
There is also an 85-member Central Committee, which receives its orders from the Politburo. The government is structured on the Stalinist model--the leadership issues directives to party cadres, which carry out the policies.
Officials who stray from the party line are dealt with severely. Albania’s premier of 27 years, Mehmet Shehu, died mysteriously in December, 1981. His death was first labeled a suicide that resulted from a nervous breakdown. But Hoxha later branded Shehu a spy, and the leading Communist Party newspaper reported in February, 1985, that the premier had been a secret agent and had been “liquidated.”
Like other officials, Haxhi rejects foreign accusations that Albania is guilty of widespread human rights violations.